Coens’ remake offers ‘True Grit’

Photo Credit: Lorey Sebastian
Posted Dec. 30, 2010, at 6:01 p.m.

In theaters

TRUE GRIT, written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, 110 minutes, rated PG-13.

The new Joel and Ethan Coen remake of the 1969 Western “True Grit” features two of the year’s best performances.

The first belongs to Jeff Bridges, who is terrific as the bum-eyed, whiskey-swilling U.S. Marshal Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn, whom John Wayne played before him in an Academy Award-winning performance.

Bridges is smart and talented enough to bring his own quirks to the role, and in doing so, he makes Cogburn his own without drawing too many comparisons to Wayne’s iconic performance. He loses himself in the role, and audiences follow.

And then there’s the movie’s surprise performance, which is so great it would be a shame if the Academy didn’t recognize it with a nomination.

Meet Hailee Steinfeld, who was 13 when she took the role of Mattie Ross, the 14-year-old girl out to avenge her father’s murder at the hands of Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). Nothing can prepare you for the steel she brings to the screen, or how she holds her own — and often trounces — the film’s veteran cast, including Matt Damon as a Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf, which here is pronounced “LaBeef.”

About Steinfeld — she fills the screen with a focus and a determination beyond her years. Nothing gets past her. It’s obvious that Mattie learned well from her father — and that she loved him fiercely — because when she needs to step up and demand to be treated fairly in this world of bartering gone berserk, she does so without flinching. She is so direct, literate and intelligent, she often leaves those in her wake dizzy by what they’re faced with — a child in pigtails who happens to have the mind of an adult.

As complex as the characters are, the plot itself is rather simple.

Mattie hires Cogburn to hunt down her father’s killer because she learned he has “true grit,” which to her means, “He’ll shoot Chaney dead.” And she’s correct — Cogburn has that capacity, which is set up beautifully in an early courtroom scene that introduces his character.

Going along for the ride is LaBoeuf, who wants Chaney for a murder he committed in Texas. Initially, Mattie doesn’t want him there — she wants Chaney to hang for killing her father, not because he killed some other man — but then she comes to see that three are better than two, and so she accepts that his presence likely is a smart move.

And that’s all that’s being revealed here.

What unfolds is a harrowing movie that finds the Coens sneaking in their trademark funny asides without losing the film’s hard edge. There’s humor here, but given the circumstances at hand, that humor is dark and almost always comes in the wake of a well-placed bullet.

For balance, the movie turns to Damon, who continues to shrewdly and successfully choose projects that are outside his comfort zone. Replete with a blond, curling mustache, his LaBoeuf is a hot mess. But his calmness amid the growing storm is precisely what the movie needs to balance the tension, and then, when the Coens are ready, to fully release it when the “True Grit” of the title comes into play in the film’s final, brutal showdown between all of the characters.

Well, at least those who are left standing. Grade: A

On DVD and Blu-ray

THE AMERICAN, directed by Anton Corbijn, written by Rowan Joffe, 155 minutes, rated R.

If ever there was a film that featured a title loaded with irony, it’s Anton Corbijn’s “The American.”

The film stars one of America’s most popular leading men — George Clooney — but everything else about the movie eschews what it means to be an American thriller now. The film opens briefly in Sweden and then, for the rest of the movie, we’re in the hills of Italy. Beyond Clooney and his character, there otherwise is no connection to anything American in “The American.”

This is a movie made with a European sensibility — the focus is on character and story (and a believable story, at that), not on explosions, bravado and dialogue so crippled by cliches you either want to cover your ears or throw grease at the screen.

As such, American audiences either will love this movie for its intelligence, authority and restraint, or they will hate it because it refuses to come through with a more muscular form of entertainment.

Here is a movie that thrives in the absence of a score (some music accompanies the movie, but only a trace). Many will argue that it’s too slow and self-indulgent. Others will long for something to go “boom” while Corbijn takes his time building a quiet sense of dread and suspense.

I loved this movie. I loved it for giving the finger to what so many American thrillers have become. Instead of coming off an assembly line, here is a thriller that’s fresh and different, focused and smart, and so because of this, it’s no wonder it made only $13 million during its opening weekend at the box office. When it opened in summer, how could it stand a chance in the absence of serious gunfire, nuclear warfare and some pumped-up muscle-head here to save the world?

Sorry to rail against such fare, but given that so much of our culture is dumbed down to the point of incompetence, it’s sad knowing that this movie’s poor showing at the box office likely will make it difficult for other films of similar ilk to make their way onto the big screen. In its place will be the next Adam Sandler movie. And we all know the significant risks he takes.

In the film, Clooney is Jack, an international assassin who is so cunning he would make novelist John Le Carre proud. After fleeing events in Sweden, he leaves for Italy, where he takes to a small town built into a mountainside and waits, knowing that sooner or later he will come under attack by the very people he left behind in Sweden.

In the meantime, events occur that shift the movie off its axis. Jack receives a job offer from his contact, Pavel (Johan Leysen), to build an exacting piece of weaponry for another assassin, Mathilde (Thekla Reuten). Jack meets a priest (Paolo Bonacelli) who senses in Jack how haunted he is by life. And after a visit to a whore house, Jack also meets Clara (Violante Placido), who is so turned on by his robust technique in the bedroom, she soon wants nothing to do with his money and everything to do with him. Though Jack has learned to steer clear of relationships, he still falls for Clara, which complicates the movie immeasurably.

What lifts the film higher are Martin Ruhe’s superb cinematography, which somehow makes Italy look equally beautiful and terrifying; the way the movie measures Jack’s isolation by often showing him in extreme close-up; and how Rowan Joffe’s script, itself based on Martin Booth’s novel, “A Very Private Gentleman,” stays true to the book’s title. We don’t come to know much about Jack, but through Clooney’s fine performance, we can hear the skeletons rattling beyond his furrowed brow and know that the ghosts inside are eager to bust free. Grade: A

WeekinRewind.com is the site for Bangor Daily News film critic Christopher Smith’s blog, DVD giveaways and archive of movie reviews. Smith’s film reviews appear Mondays in Lifestyle, and his video movie previews appear Wednesdays in the Lifestyle section of bangordailynews.com. He may be reached at Christopher@weekinrewind.com.

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